Opinion| The Gaza War sparks US-Israeli disagreements

by cindihalford491

The recent conflict in Gaza has led to disagreements between the United States and Israel, resulting in a public display of tension that has raised various questions. These questions concern the power dynamics between the two nations and the potential impact of this dispute on their nearly seven-decade-long relationship.

It’s essential to note that the disagreement is between the current political administrations of both countries, not their foundational orientations and strategies. The rift over the approach to the Gaza Strip conflict has grown since early April 2024, following an Israeli airstrike that unfortunately caused the deaths of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen charity. This tension peaked with US President Joe Biden’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza on 10 April and his critique of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s management of the situation.

The shift in the US position is partly due to critical remarks from Democratic Party leaders, especially Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, who called the Israeli government a significant barrier to peace. This change is also influenced by the conflict’s progression and a noticeable shift in the international community’s perspective.

Discrepancies emerged from the differences in visions and policies of the two parties since the formation of the Israeli government in late December 2022, which US President Joe Biden described as “the most right-wing in Israel’s history.” The American administration had reservations about certain government aspects, especially the inclusion of ministers from religious Zionist parties. Some administration members refused to meet with Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich during his March 2023 Washington visit. As a result, the meeting between Biden and Netanyahu was delayed for months, eventually occurring on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in September 2023, breaking the tradition of promptly hosting the Israeli Prime Minister at the White House.

The American stance before the war reflected concerns about the radical actions and policies of some Israeli government members. These concerns centred on two main issues: the “judicial reforms” initiative, which caused a significant division within Israel, and the increasing extremist behaviour in the West Bank, particularly regarding the government’s settlement expansion efforts.

Post-war disputes focused on the Israeli government’s actions to destabilize the West Bank and pressure the Palestinian Authority by withholding Palestinian tax revenues, known as “clearance.” Washington warned that such measures could lead to the Palestinian Authority’s collapse, precisely when it sought American support to manage the Gaza Strip after the war. Violence against Palestinians in the West Bank increased after the conflict, leading the United States to impose sanctions on settlers, including one in early February 2024 and another on 14 March. The US administration also planned to sanction the “Netzah Yehuda” Brigade for alleged human rights violations in the West Bank.

While both sides agree on the conflict’s primary goals, such as freeing Israeli detainees held by Palestinian factions and disabling Hamas’s capabilities, they differ in their methods and strategies. The disagreement extends to post-war matters, with Washington advocating for an extended ceasefire to aid the release of Israeli captives and the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza. In contrast, the Israeli government prefers a military-focused strategy. It is ready to invade Rafah in southern Gaza, despite US and international community objections due to concerns for the local population’s safety.

Washington is advocating for tangible improvements in the living conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and an end to the indiscriminate loss of civilian lives. The death toll from the conflict in the Gaza Strip has reportedly reached approximately 33,000 as of mid-April. In response to US pressure, Israel has reduced its military operations, with only the Nahal Brigade remaining active in the area.

Most of Israel’s military divisions and brigades have progressively withdrawn from the Strip. Nonetheless, Palestinians continue to face significant challenges, particularly due to the restrictive Israeli blockade, notably in the Gaza Strip’s northern regions. International reports have raised alarms about a potential famine, leading the United States to take unilateral steps by airdropping aid and announcing intentions to build a temporary sea dock in the Gaza Strip to expedite aid delivery to those in need.

While both parties aim to weaken the Hamas movement, the United States does not consider military action as the only solution. It emphasises the need to address the legitimate concerns of the Palestinian people.

Consequently, one of Washington’s post-war goals is to establish a unified Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, this initiative faces opposition from the Israeli government. At the same time, there is concern within the American opposition that Israel’s reoccupation of the Gaza Strip could inadvertently lend credibility to Hamas and encourage the concept of armed resistance among Palestinians, from Washington’s viewpoint.

The shift in the American administration’s rhetoric is not merely a tactic to pressure the Israeli government; it also highlights two critical aspects for the United States. These aspects carry significant value and strategic importance for President Joe Biden’s administration, impacting both the electoral scene and the historical legacy of his presidency. The Biden administration views this as an opportunity to initiate a substantial shift in the Middle East’s overall dynamics, starting with the displacement of Hamas from the Gaza Strip and the reinstatement of the Palestinian Authority’s governance over the Strip.

The United States is committed to establishing a Palestinian state that meets the criteria for a two-state solution. This effort is integral to the US-sponsored Saudi-Israeli peace talks. Riyadh has stated that the creation of an independent Palestinian state is a precondition for recognizing the State of Israel. Achieving this would not only strengthen President Biden’s electoral position against his Republican adversary, Donald Trump, but it would also secure his place in history as the president who addressed one of the globe’s most intricate conflicts.

The notable shift is that the United States is refocusing on the Middle East due to the war in the Gaza Strip, marking a strategic pivot. The past three US administrations—Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden—had sought to minimize their Middle East engagements to concentrate on global competition. However, the Gaza Strip conflict has impacted US support for Ukraine against Russia, posing significant risks to the Ukrainian military’s territorial control, especially given the Russian army’s advancements in eastern Ukraine’s strategic regions. As a result, the US is hastening military support to Kyiv.

The House of Representatives has approved a bill to allocate approximately $60bn to counter the Russian conflict and assist European nations that have resumed aid after a hiatus. Moreover, there is an emerging independent defence narrative in Europe, distinct from the US, with France even considering deploying troops to defend Ukraine. This development raises the prospect of Europe and NATO being drawn into a direct conflict with Russia.

Likely, the differences between the US administration and the Israeli government regarding their respective priorities will continue. However, it seems unlikely that these disagreements will escalate within the context of bilateral relations. This is apparent from the Democratic-led US House of Representatives’ expected approval of a military aid package to Israel, despite some members’ opposition to the Gaza Strip conflict.

The discussion about Washington’s preference for a more cooperative Israeli government that aligns with its strategic interests persists, especially in light of the absence of a US response to the ongoing protests in Tel Aviv demanding early elections. Furthermore, the warm reception in Washington of centre-right figures critical of Netanyahu’s government, such as Gantz and Lapid, indicates a willingness for an American initiative to reconfigure Israel’s government by distancing from extremist factions.

Hatem Sadek: Professor at Helwan University

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